Hello! - Alicia Markova
Posted: May 15 2015
Alicia Markova was born Lilian Alicia Marks in 1910 and by the time she was ten she was dancing professionally. Her show-bills bore the legend ‘Little Alicia, the child Pavlova’ and while the claim was exaggerated at the time, by the point at which she entered her prima ballerina years, she was indeed the closest thing England had ever produced to the great Pavlova.
Alicia Markova’s early years did not suggest her bright future. She was small, thin, knock-kneed and flat-footed. In addition she rarely spoke and was so shy that she was taught at home by a governess rather than attending school like her sisters. From this unpromising material, magic emerged. Enrolled in a dance class to correct her knock knees, the solemn little girl won the top prize in a talent contest the very first time she went on stage. Ballet became her life and at the age of nine her father managed to introduce her to Anna Pavlova who invited her home, critiqued her barre work and taught her how to recover from strenuous performances.
Impressed by Alicia’s abilities and her dedication, her parents transferred her to a Russian ballet teacher and when Diaghilev turned up one day to watch the junior dancers, it was Alicia he picked out as the dancer to watch.
The creation of Alicia Markova
It was around this time that she was reunited with a former classmate from her first ballet classes - Patrick Healey-Kay, nearly ten years her senior, was to become known as Anton Dolin, and the two were to have a successful on-stage relationship for many decades. It was Diaghilev who ‘Russianised’ both their names, as was traditional at the time, and his conferring their new names on them was a mark of his belief in their talents.
By 1929 it looked as if she was set fair, dancing as a second ballerina and with Diaghilev promising her prima ballerina roles in the following season. She took her first holiday for many years and was in Brighton when the news of his death reached her. She was devastated and so was her burgeoning ballet career.
So poor that she couldn’t afford class fees, she practiced steps in her bathroom. Contemporaries gave her work when they could; Frederick Ashton hired her to mark out steps for his commissions and Ninette de Valois chose her to perform works produced on the tiny stage of the Ballet Club, where the audience could almost reach out and touch the dancers. It was here that Markova honed her ability to appear calm during the most demanding performances, a trait that amazed everybody when she graduated to prima ballerina status.
Prima Ballerina and role model
That happened in 1934 when, at the age of 24, she debuted as Giselle at the Old Vic, partnered by Dolin. They were to dance together for three decades and when she was 38 she reprised the role, with Dolin as her partner again, to triumphant acclaim, and in 1959 she danced Giselle for the last time.
After retiring in 1962, she was ballet director of the New York Metropolitan Opera House, and even at the age of 92 would still perform steps for the benefit of the dancers she was directing. She died in 2004, still serving as a governor of several ballet schools and with an unmatched reputation as Britain’s first great prima ballerina.